In the valley in the wintertime, the sun is a late riser. Barely has it poked its head above the surrounding hills than it is already sinking. What little light lifts above the bowl is quickly absorbed by a bank of perennial, pregnant cloud, which lauds it over the town like an overseer. In the valley in the wintertime, will spring never come?
Tom too was a late riser that next morning. He had twice woken, groaned, swigged at his water and dropped off again, before eventually emerging from beneath the quilt. He pulled on the same pair of black tracksuit bottoms from the night before; there was a rising smell from the socks he still wore. He removed a football shirt from the drawer with the number six emblazoned across its back. He put it on, pushed on his trainers and removed the cap from the floor, applying it to his closely shaven skull. He walked out to the landing.
“Oh Thomas,” his mother said, “must you always come down like a herd of wild elephants?”
Before he could offer a reply, a loud voice bellowed from the living room, “’Ere, speak of the devil, here he is now. How do, wog whacker?” The man laughed heartily, his spectacles jiggling with satisfaction.
“Alright there Uncle Fred. Nah, this guy weren’t a wog, ‘e was a Paki.”
“A what now?”
“A Paki. A Pakistani like.”
“Sorry son, you’ve lost me. What’s a Pakistani when he’s at home?” There was a tinge of nerves to his chuckle.
Confusion flickered across Tom’s face. Then his mouth opened and his eyes scrunched together. “Yeah, very funny Fred. Like you don’t know what a Paki is, enough of ‘em work at your fucking place.”
“Sorry Mum. Fred, I know you like a joke, but that really is piss poor right.”
“Sorry son,” his father chimed in, “I don’t know what a Pakistani is either.” A half filled room of people stared blankly at him.
“I can’t fathom how you kids keep up all these new words you come up with.” his mother said. “Bakistani indeed.”
“It’s Pakistani mum.” he snapped, spitting out the words. “Pakistani. The place is fucking crawling with ‘em.”
“What place?” his dad asked.
“Crawling with who?” Fred added.
Tom sighed, loudly. “This fucking town is crawling with fucking Pakis, dad. Sorry Mum.”
“Pakis? Hang on, do you mean the Asians?”
“Yes.” Tom said in frustration.
“Well I wouldn’t say there’s a swarm. Mind you, they reckon a couple of streets up Whalley Range is all wogs now.”
Tom starred at his dad in amazement. “A couple of streets? A couple of streets? Whalley Range is full of Pakis.”
“Now son, I don’t like them being here any more than you do, but you shouldn’t exaggerate. There’s a couple of hundred at most.”
Tom gave an elongated sigh of rising impatience. “Na,dad, I ain’t buying this. I’m away out, ya doing ma fucking head in.” He turned his back on the bewildered room and slammed the door behind him.
“Tom son, just in time.” Fraser shouted, as he walked into the vault of the George and Dragon. A twenty pound note was wafted in his direction. “Go tae the bar for me will ya son.”
“No probs Frase.” The teenager smiled. “You’ll be wanting ya change in coins.”
“Aye, too right.” The burly, red faced man returned his grin.
“What the fuck are you two going on about?”
The men exchanged a look. “Nothing Mick.” Tom said.
“Aye.” agreed the Scot. “Shit! Ah havenae shown yous what ma boy sent me.”
The others were huddled around Fraser’s phone as Tom delivered the drinks and a pile of small change. “That’s top.” enthused Ian.
“Aye, shit hot.” Gaz agreed. “Hey Frase, you couldn’t Bluetooth that to me could ya?”
“Bluetooth!” Mick exclaimed. “I never knew you were such a nerdy fairy Gaz.”
The big man looked positively shocked at the suggestion. “Nah, I reckon Gaz has got a good idea there Mick.” Ian said, leaping to his friend’s defence. “If Frase were to send it to all of us, then we could all set it as our background. Be like a badge of honour.”
“That’s no a bad idea.” agreed Fraser.
“What ya on about?” Tom asked.
“Hey, Tom ain’t even seen it yet.”
“Here, get ay load of this.” Fraser said, passing Tom his phone. On the small screen was a photograph. Two men of Middle Eastern extraction lay horizontally away from each other. They were both dead. Embedded in the foreground was a bomb, intact, its propeller sticking up at the viewer. Dripping red lettering above and below read, ‘Kill All Wogs’.
“That’s top.” said Tom. “Where’d ya get it from?”
“Ma youngest sent it me. See it's of when Saddam gassed he’s own people.” His expression was melancholic. “Tam’s unit got shot up the other day. Pal of his got killed.”
“Well you know what I think Frase.” Mick said. “They shouldn’t be out there.”
“When that war were over we should’ve pulled out and let them sand niggers fucking well kill each other. Then we could’ve taken all the oil we wanted.”
“Wee ya there Mick.”
“Hang on.” said Tom, staring at the image. “Frase, you reckon this is from when Saddam gassed them people?”
“Aye, son, that’s what he’s text said.”
“Shouldn’t it say, Kill All Pakis then?”
The others stared at him. “What the fuck is a Paki?” Mick said.
“For fuck’s sake.” Tom exclaimed. “You boys aren’t in on this too?”
“In on what?”
“This kidding on you’ve never ‘eard of Pakis.”
“I’m no kidding son, I don’t know what you mean.”
“I’ll say again,” Mick didn’t like wind ups, “what the fuck is a Paki?”
“Pakis, Mick. From Pakistan.”
“Is this a fucking dream you’ve had, boy? Where the fuck is Pakistan?”
“Listen, what do you call Muslims?” Tom persisted.
“I call them stinky little wogs.” The others laughed.
“No, no, no, wogs are Indians.”
“Aye, Indians are wogs.” Fraser agreed. “And Muslims and Hindoos and Iraqis. All they cunts from Middle East.”
“Err, India isn’t actually in the Middle East, Frase.” Ian said.
“Shut the fuck up Ian.” Mick commanded. “Just ‘cause you’re the Quiz Night Queen, this is no time to be a smart arse. What I want to know is what the fuck this Cockney cock sucker is on about.” He stared hard at Tom. “Well, bummer boy, what the fuck is Pakistan?”
“Nah, sorry Mick, I ain’t ‘aving this. Paki-fucking-stan, Mick. Pass me ya bag.”
“Ya Adidas bag, pass it to me.”
“This better be going somewhere, I am not fucking amused.” Mick leaned over and picked up a brown sports bag, circa 1978.
“See, I ain’t as thick as you all think. You forgot about the flag boys.”
“What about it?” Mick said.
“Aye, what about it?” parroted Fraser.
“Ya always carry a Pakistani flag, so you can shit people up, Mick.”
“Really.” Mick said. “Well this should be good. I’m looking forward to seeing a flag from a place I’ve never fucking heard of.” There was extra venom in the f of fuck.
Tom unzipped the bag and pulled the rolled up cloth out in lengths, like handkerchiefs tumbling from a conjurer’s pocket. He grabbed two corners with his fists and held it out at arm’s length. “See.” he said. Mick’s eyes had fixed him throughout.
Mick smiled thinly and nodded down at the cloth. Tom followed his gaze. Three stripes of saffron, white and green ran horizontally, a blue wheel central to the rectangle. Tom’s face fell.
Mick rubbed his temples. The pub had fallen deathly silent. “Lucky for you, we’re due up at Whalley Range.” His words were slow and heavy. “But I swear, if that wog flag isn’t back in my bag in the next thirty seconds, I’m gonna sack off the demo and go to work on you instead.”
“Yes Mick. Sorry Mick.”
“Damm right you’re sorry.” The others shook their heads at him. “I’ve already got one spastic in't gang, I don’t need another. No offence Gaz.” The apology was made for comic effect. It worked.
While Fraser and Ian laughed at Gaz, Tom packed the flag away in record time. He zipped it up and handed it back to Mick. Mick received it and clipped Tom ‘round the back of the head. Then he span him ‘round and kicked him up the backside. “Get out of the fucking door. And you three, hurry up, I haven’t got all day.”
It was still early as Tom headed home, but already dark. The street lights cast an eerie sodium glow across the underbelly of unbroken grey. Tom crossed a car park and climbed a ramp and came to a dimly lit stretch of canal. He traipsed along the bridleway, his face red from the bitter north wind. The water's surface was as black and as still as obsidian, swallowing all light that fell into it.
The path took Tom past the old industrial heart. The waterway had once served as main artery to mechanised kingdoms up and down the country. Now those dilapidated mills littered the bank-side, like corpses left to rot in the street. The embankment bushes were decorated with discarded shopping bags and rusted solvent cans. Graffiti adorned the underpass of every bridge. Craig sucks old mens cocks. We R All Just Pawns In There Game. UP THE BLUES.
The lock ahead marked the point at which Tom left the path for home. Sat on the lock gate arm, a figure was clearly silhouetted. It hopped down at Tom’s approach, leaning upon a cane. Tom stiffened, his fists clenched. “Ah Tom.” a voice called, “Hello there.”
“Oh it’s you.” he replied. “’ey, what ‘appened to your voice?”
“Well, I went to try and see a dentist, but they said I had to wait for a cancellation. There were no cancellations, so I sat there all day and watched this thing you call television. It was very good, I learnt much.” He flicked a piece of fluff from his greatcoat.
“Yeah? ‘ey, where’s there a dentist open on a Sunday?”
“Ah, it is a special dentist, a long way from ‘ere.”
“Right.” Tom said, suspiciously. “’ey, what you ‘anging around the canal for? You ain’t an arse bandit are you?”
“You know what I mean.” the teenager replied, menacingly. “A queer boy. They ‘ang around the canal looking for cock. Fuck me, don’t tell me I shared a spliff with a shit-stabber.”
The stranger smiled. “Well I hardly think a few pulls on a cannabis ellocigarette is the same as sharing the pipe of peace. Lovely alliteration though. No, as a matter of fact I was waiting for you, Tom.”
“I knew it.” Tom spat, backing off. “You are fucking queer.”
“Tom, I am not gay!” The stranger advanced a pace, his hands up in mock surrender. “If you will allow me to finish, I was waiting here only to ask you a question.”
“Go on.” Danger. “I’m listening.”
“How do you like your world, now it is free of Pakistanis?”
Stunned silence. “What’s that?
“Well, it was you that put the idea in my head. And after you were so kind to me, a stranger in your town, newly arrived from foreign shores, the least I could do was to grant you your wish.”
Tom laughed. “Sorry mate, I ain’t being funny, but are you a bit fucking simple or what?”
“Spoken to a lot of people today Tom?”
“Yeah, so what?”
“Any of them heard of Pakistan? Or Pakis for that matter?”
“Then why do you doubt your senses? Examine a map if you don’t believe me. It doesn’t exist. It never has. It never will.”
“Serious?” Tom asked, removing a packet of cigarettes from his pocket.
“Yes, no thank you, though I should explain. When India gained independence, it remained a single country. Pakistan, and Bangladesh for that matter, never came into existence. I erased the event from history. Millions died in the ensuing violence between Hindoos and Muslims”
“Shit.” The end glowed at the lighter’s touch. “You’re really fucking serious, aren’t you?” He exhaled. “’ow can you do that?”
“I have certain powers at my disposal.”
“Yeah? Make me rich then?”
“Sorry, that’s not the game we’re playing. Think of me more as a removal man, if you will. Like Pakistan.”
“Look, ya daft twat, when I say Paki, I don’t just mean cunts from Pakistan.”
“You call Scottish people Scots, don’t you?”
“Yeah, the Jocks are Scots. But Pakis, they’re all the Arabs, all the Muslims.”
“Well which is it? Arabs or Muslims?”
“What fucking difference does it make? They’re all the same.”
“Well no, they’re not actually. Muslims are members of the world wide Islamic faith. Arabs, on the other hand, are citizens of any one of half a dozen countries situated on the Arabian Peninsula. Tom, you need to be clear in your terms of reference if you are to get what you wish for.”
“Right, but what good is sacking off countries if the cunts are still coming over here?”
“Well you have to admit there are far fewer than there were yesterday.”
Tom smiled at the realisation. “Yeah.”
“Besides,” the stranger continued, “Pakistan was merely an example of my work, a free sample. Of course I can erase any group you wish. Within reason.”
“And what?” Tom snorted. “You’re telling me you can just get rid of them?”
“Name your enemy and when you wake tomorrow it will be as if they never existed. Which they won’t. You will be the only one who remembers them. However, games have rules.” The stranger wagged his finger, like a conductor waiving a baton. “You need to be specific and strictly one request per day.”
“Right, well get rid of the Pakis then.”
“I think we’ve already established that you have.” The stranger made to speak again, but was cut short by a sound. A dog came padding down the adjoining path. “’arry’s dog.” Tom said, watching the spaniel scamper towards him. He turned back to the stranger, but he’d vanished.
A shape in wax jacket and flat cap walked down the path, resolving itself into that of a middle aged man. “Oh hello Tom, I didn’t know you come down here.”
“What? Nah, you got it all wrong ‘arry, I’m err, waiting for someone.”
“There’s no need to apologise Tom lad. Maybe we could wait for each other sometime, if you get me.”
Tom’s face became thunder. “Keep walking, Gaylord.” Harry’s head lowered in disappointment as he wandered off. Tom watched the man ‘til he was out of sight.
“May I make a suggestion?” the stranger said, causing Tom to jump.
“Fucking ‘ell, where’d you get to?”
“Just over there. It’s not a good idea that I be seen by too many people. Anyway, I recommend getting rid of the Arabs.”
“Yes. No Arabs, no Mohammed. No Mohammed, no Islam. And if I understand your vernacular correctly, that would mean no ‘Pakis’.” He made speech marks in the air around the last word.
“Yeah, right on.”
“And no Judaism either.”
“Even better. Big nosed cunts.”
“However, I am morally obliged to issue you with this warning. If I erase Arabia from history, I do so for all time. Any inventions, any contributions made by the people of that region will likewise be erased, never to be replicated.”
“Big fucking deal.” Tom snorted. “Cunts haven’t done anything for thousands of years anyway.”
“A very enlightened attitude I’m sure. Well then, all you need do is ask me formally.”
“What, to get rid of the pak, I mean the Arabs?”
“Ok, get rid of the Arabs.”
The man removed a glove, spat on his hand and held it out. Tom shook it. The man bowed. “It shall be done. Right, well I’ll go and set the wheels in motion. And pick up my dry cleaning.”
“Yes, it is a specialist dry cleaners, opposite the dentists. I will check in on you tomorrow.” He threw his cane out in front of him and strolled off.
“Yeah, see ya later.” Tom replied, absentmindedly. He stayed for a few moments, then went on his way.